Portrait of Sun Yat-sen. China honors Sun as the father of the republic.

Sun Yat-sen was a revolutionary leader and founder of Republican China (1912–1949). An uprising in 1911 resulted in his election as provisional president of the new republic and the abdication of the Qing dynasty emperor in 1912. He devised what he called the “Three People’s Principles” for the new republic: nationalism, democracy, and livelihood. Those principles are today the guiding ideology of the Republic of China on Taiwan.

Sun Yat-sen was born near Guangzhou (Canton) to a family of farmers. His personal name was “Wen,” his style or secondary name was “Yat-sen,” and his revolutionary name (for which he is better known in China) was “Zhongshan” (?? Chung-shan). He first attended a village school, went to Honolulu at age thirteen with his older brother for his secondary education, then received a medical degree at the College for Medicine for Chinese in Hong Kong. Alienated by the ineffectiveness of the Manchu Qing dynasty (1644–1912), Sun became a revolutionary. Travels to Hawaii, Hong Kong, and later to England and the United States had a profound influence on him.

In 1894 Sun Yat-sen founded the Revive China Society (Xingzhonghui ???) among overseas Chinese with the goal of expelling the Manchus from China and establishing a republic. Later he devised a set of ideals for the republic that he called the “Three People’s Principles”: nationalism, democracy, and livelihood, which are roughly analogous to U.S. President Abraham Lincoln’s phrase “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Sun also envisioned a combination of the best government concepts of the West with those of traditional China in a five-power constitution that would consist of the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches plus a censorate (to check abuses by officials) and an examination system to recruit a bureaucracy. The Revive China Society was incorporated in 1905 by the Tongmenghui (??? United League) with membership among military officers of the Qing army, Chinese students abroad, and overseas Chinese.

After ten abortive uprisings between 1895 and 1911, the eleventh—the Wuchang Uprising of 10 October 1911—was successful, resulting in Sun’s election as provisional president of Republican China (1912–1949), with his capital in Nanjing, and the abdication of the Qing emperor on 12 February 1912. Sun resigned as president in favor of General Yuan Shikai on condition that Yuan support the republic.

However, Yuan betrayed the republic by abrogating the elected parliament, which was dominated by the Nationalist Party (in 1912 the Tongmenghui became the Nationalist Party or Guomindang ???), culminating in Yuan’s failed attempt to become emperor. After Yuan’s attempt at usurpation politics in China degenerated to civil wars among rival warlords.

Sun, frustrated in attempts to obtain help from Western democracies, turned to the newly established Communist government in Russia for military and organizational help in 1922. Sun agreed to the Russian stipulation that the Nationalists accept members of the new Chinese Communist Party into their ranks. Sun then reorganized the Nationalist Party and assigned his lieutenant, Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975), to assemble an army committed to Sun’s ideology. Sun died of cancer in Beijing while making a last attempt to negotiate a peaceful unification of China. Because he had expressed a desire to be buried in Nanjing, his body was temporarily kept in the Biyun Temple in Beijing until a mausoleum could be built in Nanjing.

Four years later, in May of 1929, the mausoleum was completed. A train carried Sun’s body from Beijing to Nanjing; the body was then moved along a newly built boulevard (named Sun Yat-sen Road) to the site of the new mausoleum, officially known as the Mausoleum of Dr. Sun Yat-sen. The mausoleum is engraved with the phrase “Nationalism, Democracy, and People’s Livelihood.” A public memorial service was held for three days before Sun was laid to rest on 1 June 1929.

China honors Sun Yat-sen as the father of the republic, and his Three People’s Principles are the guiding ideology of the Republic of China (1949–?) on Taiwan.

Further Reading

Bergere, M. C. (1998). Sun Yat-sen. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Schiffrin, H. (1968). Sun Yat-sen and the origins of the Chinese revolution. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Schiffrin, H. (1980). Sun Yat-sen: Reluctant revolutionary. Boston: Little, Brown.

Sharman, L. (1968). Sun Yat-sen: His life and its meaning. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. (Original work published 1934)

Wilbur, C. M. (1976). Sun Yat-sen: Frustrated patriot. New York: Columbia University Press.

Source: Upshur, Jiu-Hwa Lo. (2009). SUN Yat-sen. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2133–2135. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Bust of Sun Yat-sen. Sun devised a set of ideals for China’s new republic that he called the “Three People’s Principles”: nationalism, democracy, and livelihood. PHOTO BY JOAN LEBOLD COHEN.

Sun Yat-sen sits in the front center of this group photograph.

SUN Yat-sen (S?n Zh?ngsh?n ???)|S?n Zh?ngsh?n ??? (SUN Yat-sen)

Download the PDF of this article